Genetically Modified Mustard at the Supreme Court

Context: A long drawn PIL has prevented Centre from permitting Genetically Modified mustard to be cultivated commercially.

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GM Mustard

It is an Herbicide Tolerant (HT) mustard variety that has undergone genetic modification. It has two alien genes —”barnase” and “barstar”; isolated from a soil bacterium called Bacillus, amyloliquefaciens. It enables the breeding of high-yielding commercial mustard hybrids.

  • The first gene (‘barnase’) codes for a protein that impairs pollen production and renders the plant into which it is incorporated male-sterile. 
  • This plant is then crossed with a fertile parental line containing, in turn, the second ‘barstar’ gene that blocks the action of the barnase gene. 
  • The resultant F1 progeny is both high-yielding and also capable of producing seed/ grain, due to the barstar gene in the second fertile line.
Science behind DMH-11

Genetically Modified Crops

GM is a technology that involves inserting DNA into the genome of an organism. To produce a GM plant, new DNA is transferred into plant cells. Usually, the cells are then grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA.

  • Biotechnologists insert select genes at a location in the DNA of a plant to develop a GM crop. 
  • The insertion makes a GM crop express traits that it ordinarily would not. 
  • For instance, GM mustard has been altered to withstand the broad-spectrum plant-killer or herbicide Glufosinate. 
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Some methods used in Genetic Modification

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Conventional Breeding Vs Genetic Modification 

Conventional Breeding Vs Genetic Modification 

Benefits of GM Crops 

  • GM crops have reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68% (As per Klumper and Qaim, 2014). 
  • GM crops have also reduced Carbon dioxide emissions (mostly through no-till farming practices) by 24.5 million kg per annum (As per the study by Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, 2020).
  • As per FAO study done in 2022, The long and safe track record of GM crop cultivation and consumption of foods derived from them over the past 28 years (1994 to 2022) attest the safety of GM foods to Humankind. 
  • Global cultivation of GM Crops which shows the benefit of the GM crops
    • GM crops are cultivated in 29 countries in an area of 190 million hectares
    • Forty-three countries import foods, oils and feed derived from GM crops. 
    • Nine non-food GM crops and twenty-two GM food and feed crops are cultivated and consumed globally.
  • India commercialized insect pest-resistant Bt-cotton in 2002 that brought about a significantly positive change in cotton production, export and textile industry.
    • It has greatly reduced the use of toxic pesticides
    • As a result of the adoption of Bt cotton, India is now the largest cotton producer in the world.
  • Food and nutritional security can be ensured in growing population of India.

Concerns over GM crops in India

  • Long-term research suggests that Bt cotton has provided only fleeting benefits to farmers, while enormously increasing their costs of cultivation and risk.
  • Use of Termination technology which shuts off the reproductive abilities of seeds, making second generation seeds sterile. 
  • Due to the royalty charges to multinational corporations, genetically modified seeds are expensive.
  • Technical Expert Committee (TEC) appointed by Supreme Court found HT crops completely unsuitable in the Indian context and warned of serious harm to the environment, rural livelihoods and sustainable agriculture if they were released.
  • A Parliamentary standing committee report exposes gaps in which government ignores several things like biosafety, biodiversity and food and seed sovereignty and farmers livelihoods.
  • According to activists and farmers, GM mustard is an herbicide-tolerant crop and toxic chemicals sprayed on the plant would impact the health of the people consuming it.  
  • According to critics GM Crops are environmentally unsustainable and does not suit Indian agricultural conditions.  
  • There are no separate regulatory guidelines and protocols for HT crops.  
  • The parliamentary standing committees unanimously highlighted major weaknesses in the regulatory system.
    • The committee found that GM crops have an impact on health and environment and these aspects were overlooked while approving Bt Brinjal trials in India. 
  • Excessive production of genetically engineered crops will eventually render them useless as the pest will generate immunity to the toxin.

Mechanism to get approval for Genetically Modified Crops in India

  • There is a well-established regulatory framework for approval of Genetically Modified (GM) crops as per “Rules for the Manufacture/Use/Import/Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms, Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells, 1989” under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 in the Country.
  • Evaluation of each application of GM crop is done mandatorily on a case-to-case basis after a thorough examination of health, environment, food and feed safety assessment studies undertaken in a systematic and scientific manner as per prescribed guidelines, manuals and standard operating procedures stipulated by various regulatory agencies under the Rules, 1989 from time to time. 
  • The data generated by the applicants is reviewed at every step in the development process of GM crops by various Statutory Committees under the Rules, 1989 such as Institutional Biosafety Committee, Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee.
  • Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is the final authority to pass the GM crop for cultivation and use.

Way Forward 

  • A rapidly developing country like India with a burgeoning population cannot afford to ignore sustainable technologies like GM crops for drought tolerance, nutrient use efficiency, especially that of nitrogen, and thermotolerance.
  • The concerns about the development of antibiotic resistance, horizontal gene transfer, “terminator gene”, adverse effects on health etc., should be dispelled convincingly by various global scientific committees and experts and accordingly the crops should be introduced.  
  • The GMO regulatory System in India formulated well-defined protocols and procedures to subject a GM organism to a plethora of tests that often takes several years. The procedure should be made more effective using technological improvements with separate regulations for HT crops.

There is an urgent need of GM labelling laws in India as mentioned by the parliamentary standing committee.

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